Senior Hannah Wilcox wakes up to the harsh realization that her morning alarm is going off, signaling the start of a new day. Many of her classmates are still out in the dead hours of the night, partying and socializing. For Wilcox, waking up at 3 a.m. means only one thing: It’s time to get back in the saddle along with her teammates on the Ithaca College Equestrian Team.
Equestrianism is a sport of elegance and poise. The riders are judged by their skills as horseback riders based on their body position and the way they command horses to walk, trot and jump over obstacles, all within a few minutes. They have no say in the horses they ride; they are assigned horses at the beginning of each show. In this sport, a minor infraction could make a massive difference in the team’s outcome. Each rider’s score counts toward the team score, which decides the team’s placement in the show.
Wilcox’s passion for equestrianism is evident in her commitment to the team and teammates she calls family. However, many students are unaware of the existence of the team on campus, regardless of the members’ passion.
Senior rider Holly Habeck said she watches her efforts go unnoticed but that she doesn’t let it dampen her spirits as she continues to ride and love the sport unconditionally.
“People say to me, ‘Oh wait, IC has an equestrian team?’” Habeck said. “I think a lot of people don’t understand what we actually do. I get more people who ask if we race horses, and equestrianism is not about racing. They’re just uninformed about it.”
Every rider sacrifices their weekends to wake up in the earliest hours of the day, travel to other schools and ride against some of the most elite equestrians in New York state. Assistant coach Erica Schillbach ’13 said the team has had plenty of success in recent years, finishing in the top three of its league for the last four years in a row.
There are more than 40 students on the equestrian team who travel to the If Only Equestrian Center in Freeville, New York, which is about 20 minutes away, twice a week for practice. When the team has shows, the riders are away for over 13 hours.
Their skills as riders are dependent on the cooperation of an animal that weighs at least five times what the riders weigh.
“I really enjoy having that connection with an animal that is much larger than I am,” Wilcox said. “They have a gentleness to them, and they really enjoy doing their job and being able to get out and move. I think each horse has their own personality.”
Wilcox qualified for Zones in Fall 2016, which is a step down from competing on a national level. She said she considers the special bond with her horse the key to her success.
“I played team sports all through high school,” Wilcox said. “When you’re on a team, you have to trust your team members that they’re going to be there when you need them to be. … You trust the horse that you’re on, and the horse you’re riding trusts you. I think that’s really cool to have. To be able to ride a horse and have them respond to you and trust your decision–making is incredible.”
Schillbach has been part of the team since her freshman year at the college. She said she believes the unspoken trust between a horse and a rider is the key to the success of an equestrian.
“You will have to speak this unspoken language and understand each other,” she said. “There will be days when you get on and you’re not having a great ride and just say, ‘All right, we’re not going to do this today.’ It’s not always about practice, practice, practice. You have to build that relationship so you can understand all horses.”
Freshman rider Elizabeth Anderson said she has used the equestrian team to immerse herself in the college lifestyle. Her first year at the college was spent balancing her schedule so she could find time for her horses and her studies.
“I had lessons between classes, so I had to rush from class to the barn and then back to campus, which was hard,” Anderson said. “It’s nice when you have a lot of time to go to the barn, relax and de–stress, but trying to find time to do all my academic work and ride horses was challenging.”
Habeck said the team has updated its website and will be more active on social media to gain more support and recognition from students and the college.
“It’s unfortunate because I really think it’s an interesting sport if more people just knew about it,” she said. “We actually have horse shows at Cornell, so it’s very accessible for people to come see what it’s about and try it out.”
Freshman Candice Bermudez will be the new social media director for Fall 2017 and Spring 2018. She said she hopes that by making more consistent updates and keeping the public more informed about the team that the social media will build interest for the next class of equestrians at the college.
“I hope that showing images and the behind–the–scenes of team bonding and interacting with the horses would make people more attracted to joining the team,” Bermudez said. “That’s my goal: to make more publicity and get more team members through that.”
Many of the members of the team use riding as a way to retreat from everyday stress and relax with their horses and friends at the barn. Bermudez said she has used her participation as a way to deal with the stress of being a freshman and getting used to life at the college.
“If I’m having a tough day here at school or something, knowing that I’ll be going to the barn will make everything better,” Bermudez said. “It’s a real physical release. A lot of people use running on the treadmill to de-stress or playing Frisbee out on the lawn with their friends. For us, it’s the same thing — getting on the horse alleviates some of that stress for us.”
Schillbach said she has been using horse riding and the equestrian team as an outlet for everyday stress since joining the team.
“I think that for these girls and when I was in school, you go to the barn, and you don’t even think about anything except the barn and the horses,” Schillbach said. “You’re not thinking about your social life or school because you’re so excited to get back on the horses. It’s very therapeutic when you’re around them. It’s just you and your horse, and when you’re in the ring, that’s all you’re thinking about.”